The Troy Street Observer

Nov 8, 1936: Waller Says the Joint’s Officially Jumpin’

Fats Waller was in town, headlining the Hot From Harlem Revue opening at the RKO-Boston Theatre on November 6. The Hot From Harlem stage show played Boston annually with its cast of dancers, singers, comedians, and musicians supporting the show’s headlining star.

Photo of Fats Waller
Take it from Fats—this joint’s jumpin’

We can assume that the ebullient Waller played hits like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and probably introduced a few new songs, too. A party atmosphere likely prevailed among the RKO-Boston crowd, because FDR had been re-elected by a landslide just two days before Fats opened.

But Hot From Harlem isn’t my reason for checking in with Mr. Waller today. I’m interested in the Theatrical Club, on Tremont Street in the Theatre District, and Waller’s role in ending its Jim Crow policy.

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June 10: Birthdays for Frazier and Hentoff

Two Boston-born icons of jazz journalism share a June 10 birthday, George Frazier in 1911, and Nat Hentoff in 1925. Happy 88, Nat!

Frazier and Hentoff were part of a gang of influential journalists with Boston ties (George Simon, Mike Levin, Bill Coss, Dom Cerulli, Dan Morgenstern) who determined how jazz would be covered at Down Beat and Metronome, the two major magazines reporting on it at mid-century.

Both grew up in homes of modest means, Frazier in South Boston and Hentoff in Roxbury. Neither got very far as a clarinetist. Both attended Boston Latin High School. Both made a career out of being outspoken and controversial, and both were implacable foes of Jim Crow and the abuse of power. Their musical common denominator was trumpeter Frankie Newton.

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May 27, 1963: Frazier Visits the Gilded Cage

Columnist George Frazier was writing for the Boston Herald in 1963, and he opened his May 27 column, a review of Wild Bill Davison’s club date, thusly: “What stirred the memory on this Saturday night was “Someday, Sweetheart.” Certain songs have a way of doing that, their implications and our own inferences suddenly taking us from time and place present and escorting us through the door to the past. In this case, it was “Someday, Sweetheart” that made a room redolent, changing this narrow, murky place called The Gilded Cage into a room with a view.” It was a perfect place for Frazier, a writer who revered the past.

Frazier discovered, quite by accident, that the view at the Gilded Cage was almost always of the past. It was in the Paramount Hotel building, at 11 Boylston Street, just off Washington. Louis Cohen opened the Gilded Cage in April 1958 to sell one thing: nostalgia. George Clarke wrote that the Gilded Cage “is to be a Gay Nineties rendezvous in decor and atmosphere… with a show staffed by handsome young people, each doing the songs and dances of the Mauve Decade, but with youthful verve and eclat.” Boston wasn’t interested. The club gave up on the nostalgia kick within a year.

Photo of Gilded Cage after explosion
When the music’s over: the Gilded Cage after the 1966 explosion

In August 1960 the place tried a different kind of backward glance by hiring Sally Keith, then 44, of Crawford House fame, who by this time had been twirling her tassels for 20 years. One can’t help but think that the act must have been very old for her by then. But she had a good band playing the show, that of Sabby Lewis, an elder statesman of Boston jazz even then. Keith and Lewis, both past their best days, were at the Gilded Cage until year’s end.

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